Issue 043 Author Interview: Chelsea Sutton and “The Space Beyond Cubicle Twenty-Nine”

It’s Tuesday, dear readers, and you know what that means! We have a brand new Issue 043 author interview for you to devour. Today we’re talking with Chelsea Sutton about her story “The Space Beyond Cubicle Twenty-Nine.”

LSQ: This story has a lot of significant imagery, from the sugarcane to spirals to powdered doughnuts. How did you decide on what imagery to use? Do you have any advice on using imagery effectively?

Chelsea: When I’m writing a story, I always think about ways to engage the senses beyond the visual. What images can also evoke a smell, a sound, a taste or a texture? I’m a playwright as well, and I lean heavily into sound design when I write plays – partly because sound and music can evoke so much and it saves me time in exposition. With fiction, I think smells and tastes tend to come through more often and for the same reason. Anything that is going to ground a reader into their bodies and give them a tangible experience of the world is going to be helpful, especially for things that are difficult to describe. A powdered doughnut can sometimes speak to an emotion, energy, or unknowable sadness more easily than all the abstractions a writer can muster. But make your images work for you on at least two levels. Don’t let them hang around, rent free. They have to prove their worth.

The best possible thing you can do to improve your imagery is to read and write poetry. I am not a poet. But in college I took a lot of poetry classes. At the time I took them out of curiosity and because there just were not many fiction classes in my department. So I wrote and read a ton of poetry – and I still run to it when I need to refill my word well. The expanse of worlds a poem can hold in a dozen lines is magic. Each word is especially chosen and placed in precisely the location where it can have the most impact. Fiction writers don’t necessarily have the time to obsess over every single sentence in this way – but if you can do it for those choice few moments – you’re golden. 

LSQ: Even though the world is crumbling and changing dramatically, Lucy still goes to work and buys groceries, living as normal a life as possible. What do you think you would do in a world being taken over by Humans?

Chelsea: This is tricky! For Lucy, I think she clings to normalcy for a few reasons. First, I think she has a unique way of processing the world, which allows her to see a kind of inauthenticity that most of the others can’t or are unwilling to see. Second, she’s grieving for the loss of a relationship and people she knows and we tend to like the familiar when something else has been ripped from us. But most importantly, life is still continuing on. She still has to pay rent and eat. She still has to have health insurance and get an oil change. This is because the Human take over is gradual and is wrapped very tightly around a narrative that is being fed to the population. 

I think we all have an image of who we’d be in an extreme dystopia or apocalypse. When the world as we know it has crumbled, we don’t have the option to choose normal. If there are no rent collectors and no money, then why go to work? But usually that apocalypse is sudden, dramatic, and more like a war – where you have to react immediately in order to survive. Even The Handmaid’s Tale, while also showing a gradual religious extremism and take over, has a sudden and violent movement to it that pushes it into the actual dystopia phase. But the slow descent into a dictatorship, or, say, a pandemic that doesn’t immediately turn everyone into zombies? I think of that frog-in-boiling-water analogy. We humans are really great at adapting and rationalizing, so when the changes happen in small steps, it’s easy to get lost on the trail and tell ourselves this is how its always been. The frog, however, does actually jump out before being boiled alive (it’s been scientifically proven). Humans though? I’m not so sure.

All that to say, probably we are in some sort of version of this right now, in this moment. So while I’d like to say I’d be stealing fighter jets and flying into the aliens’ giant and obvious laser weapon a la Independence Day, in reality I’m just trying to survive (because rent is still due), so I’m balancing the normal with the small acts of rebellion and incremental change (protests, voting, wearing a mask, working on codes of conduct and spreadsheet audits for various support systems). You know. The boring stuff.

LSQ: What was the most challenging thing about writing this story and why? What was your favorite part?

Chelsea: My first draft of this was far less scifi/fantasy. I wrote the first version of this during a phase when I was convinced anything too “weird” would never get published (partly because I’d been told that over and over by teachers and such). Now I don’t care and have plenty of ready-to-go lectures on why genre fiction is awesome. EVERYTHING I write is genre. Version one didn’t have any aliens at all (it was much more government conspiracy) and Lucy’s general situation was leaner. It was also in first person! So the hardest part was allowing myself to push this more into an alien invasion genre and expanding the character work. The second hardest was just structural – I rearranged how we learn information about the outside world and the office a million times. My favorite part was the office dynamics – characters who are so intimate and yet still strangers are wildly fascinating to me. And while every version of Lucy had her drawing in some way, allowing her drawing to span the whole office felt like a piece of the story’s heart that had been missing.

LSQ: What and who are your sources of inspiration?

Chelsea: When it comes to other writers, the moment I read Kelly Link’s collection Magic for Beginners, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Oh, you can do that? That’s what I want to do! So basically all Kelly Link all the time for structure, character, and imagination, and Kurt Vonnegut for language, tone, and humor. But mostly I’m inspired by my fellow writers – I have a few communities of writers in fiction and in scriptwriting who I talk with, trade writing with, and collaborate with all the time. I’m in the Clarion UCSD class for 2020/21 (we couldn’t go this year because COVID) – we call ourselves #ClarionGhostClass and we’re in a constant chat, giving and receiving advice, support, recommendations, and feedback. And I found this true with my cohort in my MFA program and other writing groups I’m involved with – I learn far more from my peers than my teachers. Awesome teachers are precious and wonderful and necessary – but it’s the people you come up with who will keep you sane, keep you on track, and inspire you. I think this is true for whatever community or career you’re in. When I taught creative writing in my grad program, that was the one last piece of advice I gave them – find your tribe. If you forget everything else I went over this quarter, just don’t forget that.